ST PAUL’s, Brighton, built in 1848 as part of the Catholic Revival, has always served the poor fishing community, both spiritually and practically. The Vicar, Canon Robert Fayers, went down to the foreshore last month to celebrate the annual blessing of the nets, and give thanks for the abundant mackerel.
So, when double glass doors were planned to replace the heavy wooden entrance doors in 2011, the church understandably commissioned the renowned glass artist Mel Howse to decorate the glass with a symbolic fish design. “One of the technical beauties of glass as a medium is its ability to form part of an architectural environment,” she says.
Through the transparent doors, deep-etched with mackerel swimming in nets, the rich Victorian furnishing of the nave and chancel is immediately visible and welcoming. Looking closely at the doors themselves, one recognises a larger fish representing the ichthus, and 12 disciples on the left, and on the right those yet to be “lured” into the loose net of the Christian Church.
People with impaired vision can feel the sand-carved life-size mackerel, and this also delights the children of St Paul’s Church School.
It is Howse’s aim “to draw together the needs of the church family, and the architectural location in my designs. Also to enhance the worship environment, transmit a message of faith, and grace the architecture.”
When studying Architectural Glass at Swansea College 20 years ago, Howse won a number of awards, and almost immediately was sought after with ecclesiastical commissions. The first was a series of abstract figurative stained-glass windows for St Illtyd’s, Swansea, telling the story of Creation. The ancient church is now used only for events and meditation, and as it took time to build up enough donations, the work took 14 years to complete.
In 2006, she designed and made the stained-glass window in the chapel of Lancing College, West Sussex, in memory of Bishop Trevor Huddleston CR, a former pupil, in which she portrayed in vibrant colours his profile looking at a poor black woman and baby in front of corrugated iron roofs and above a line of comfortable houses. This represented the apartheid that the Bishop worked tirelessly to end. Aptly, it was dedicated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 2007.
She uses a variety of techniques, traditional and new, continually experimenting with materials and designs. “If it’s not working is as interesting to me as if it’s working,” she says. “But when history dictates that materials are designed and crafted in a certain way, it is hard to get sponsorship to enable my glasswork to follow through new paths.”
Nevertheless, the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust, which awards bursaries to craftspeople of proven excellence to develop new ideas, found her work deserving of one of the few coveted scholarships to explore innovative ways to use enamel in 2008. She is very aware of the honour and prestige of being a QEST scholar, and this has led to a number of commissions for creative fonts and other church pieces. The enamelled steel is extremely resistant to damage, and to heat of up to 800° centigrade.
Although she did not set out to be an ecclesiastical artist, and has done work in schools and hospitals, she receives most of her commissions in this field. One grand exception is the 100-metre-long façade window in Sainsbury’s in Milton Keynes, which she designed in 2008, with vibrant abstract reds and golds. She feels that a piece of art in a supermarket or any public place gives it an identity, and undeniably has an effect on how people feel in the building. “Someone even said it felt like being in a church,” she observed.
In 2010, the Benedictine sisters of the Congregation of Our Lady of Grace and Compassion at St Mary’s House, Brighton, commissioned her to redesign their private chapel. She made a glass altar and reredos, stained-glass windows, and 14 Stations of the Cross, each one enamelled and etched in water-jet-cut glass. The complete work incorporated all her skills, and, she says, “is very dear to my heart”.
Working with heavy industrial equipment at extreme temperatures, she often finds it convenient to hire a corner of an interested local factory to work. She then gets help with moving the heavy pieces and positive feedback from the workforce. She also works with hydrofluoric acid to acid-etch. “This can be dangerous,” she says calmly. “But the results are beautiful.”
Very recently, she has returned to stained glass, to add two colourful figurative windows, representing two female saints, to the many dark Victorian male saints decorating the windows of the University of Winchester chapel. They wear garments and headdress suggestive of the Saxon period, and represent St Ealhswith, who founded St Mary’s Abbey, Winchester, and was the wife of King Alfred the Great; and St Edburga, who became a nun at the Abbey, and was the daughter of King Edward the Elder.
“There is a grieving process,” Howse says. “When a piece is finished and installed, and you have to say goodbye to it and the people who have been involved. So you have to go straight on to the next piece.”
One piece of sculpture which is not permanently installed, however, and is touring for its second successful year round cathedrals and some churches is the two-metre-high sculpture that forms the centrepiece, along with the photographic exhibition, for “Poverty Over”, the Christian Aid tour. For this, she used layered fields of deeply textured colour patterns suspended within the glassy skin over the steel to create two bowls resembling the human eye. One is suspended above, and looks around at what is easy to see, while the other is hidden until one looks down into the bowl below. The extrovert eye is what the comfortably off see; the hidden eye is that of the poor, which people have to make an effort to look down at.
The exhibition organiser, Canon Geoffrey Daintree, says that the sculpture has received much praise. “Without exception”, he says, “people have been disappointed when the sculpture is dismantled and moved on to the next venue.”